Providential programming


Issue: "Mel Gibson's passion," Feb. 28, 2004

The assumption through much of the modern era was that life is meaningless, a worldview that manifested itself in literature and drama with absurd plots, purposeless characters, and nihilistic themes. Now, a different worldview is manifesting itself in movies and TV shows: Life has meaning, with all of the little details tying together into one vast pattern. The shows don't necessarily depict what that meaning is or who orchestrates the pattern, but the recognition of an objective order in life is a good sign.

This intuition of providence shows up in stories about coincidences that turn out to have a mysterious purpose (as in the controversial film Magnolia) or seemingly random events that prove the key to a foreordained happiness (as in Sliding Doors, which shows two versions of a woman's life determined by whether she boarded a subway). Now the motif is showing up in popular TV shows, like Joan of Arcadia.

Tru Calling (Fox) is about a young woman, Tru Davies, who works in a morgue. From time to time, one of the dead bodies says, "Help me!" whereupon she is zapped back in time, where she must undo whatever chain of events caused the accident or murder that caused the death. When Tru makes a mistake and the death happens anyway-or someone else dies instead-she keeps replaying the day, as in the movie Groundhog Day, until she gets it right. The result is a backwards mystery, in which the detective must find clues before the murder happens.

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The other element in the show is the notion of "calling," a Christian concept referring to the vocations God gives us in the family, the workplace, the church, and the culture. Tru's calling is this strange ability to jump into the past to reverse death. "You were chosen for a reason," says her boss the coroner, who is strangely in on it. "Whoever gave you this gift did it for a reason."

Sadly, the concept is better than the execution. Tru (Eliza Dushku) is frowny and rather cold, perhaps befitting her profession, but that makes it hard for an audience to connect with her. She is a modern girl, though, going off with her boyfriend on romantic sleepovers. The corpses are often grisly enough to earn a TV-14 rating, and no effort is made to unpack the theological implications. The show begs comparison with Joan of Arcadia, but it is not in the same league. Still, this one show is part of a larger design.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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